GOP Debate Made for Great TV

14 Aug

Credit: National Park Service via Wikipedia

Ever since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate – the firsttime presidents debated for a national TV audience – the importance of television-friendliness as a presidential quality has been well known and subsequent debates have demonstrated the ability of style to trump substance. The estimated 70 million viewers of the first presidential debate in history overwhelmingly named Kennedy as the winner while audience members who heard the debate on the radio, called Nixon as the winner. Nixon reportedly refused to wear make-up for the debate and as a high school history teacher once told me, “he looked sweaty on camera.” Perhaps Nixon didn’t even look that bad, but certainly the tanned, charming, boyishly attractive John F. Kennedy certainly made him pale in comparison. What the Nixon-Kennedy debates showed us is that political discourse is as much about showmanship as it is about substance. Kennedy’s whopping win during the debate foreshadowed the shift in this country’s emphasis on political theater over political accomplishments.

Television itself has proven to be a game changer in the political discourse.  Early 2008 interviews can be credited with the take-down of Sarah Palin as any real threat to the presidency. Clips of her I can see Russia gaffe and her inabilityto name a single newspaper will live on forever in Internet-infamy and the Zeitgeist. But television can also be credited with supplying Sarah Palin with longevity and unwavering press-coverage, by her supporters and her attackers – perhaps even more so by the latter. Sarah Palin’s made-for-tv looks helped her gain early intrigue from the moment she was named as a Vice Presidential nominee; her made-for-tv personality, full of one-liners, folksy jabs and winks, has kept her relevant far beyond the expiration date of her actual political career (as governor of Alaska). Even though her favorability rating in the general public is shrinking, it’s important to note that major pollsters are still actually performing favorability polls on a public figure who is not running for president, does not currently hold office, and has flouted any indications that she might run. It’s true Sarah Palin could still jump in the primary, but I doubt it; she’s plenty powerful where she is right now: on TV and in headlines. TV arguably made and arguably disassembled her political career. Either way, it undoubtably made her who she is today, to the point where her bus tour/family vacation merits national TV coverage.

Which brings us where we are today: at the height of political theater. Sometimes politicians treat elections like job interviews, rattling off their accomplishments and repeating to us their resumes. Other times (increasingly often times) politicians treat elections like auditions, where the most attention-grabbing candidates know that PR stunts are what will keep them in the news. It’s difficult to ever predict how much of a politician’s personality you see is calculated, how much is authentic and how much is simply an appeal to a popularity contest. Swing voters like strong leadership and authenticity. Talking points only work on the hyper-partisan voters who have already made up their minds about 100% of their choices and are simply looking for a candidate that will be a mirror for their hopes and fears. Which is why primary debates are more zany than general election debates. Some of the candidates, like Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman are feeding off of and feeding into the small but vocal constituencies that have absolute support of their agendas, like say the Religious Right in this case. Others, who lack in media attention, like Herman Cain and to a lesser extent, Tim Pawlenty, come out swinging just to keep their campaigns alive. There’s usually a sole, renegade candidate who is true to his or her beliefs despite being almost unelectable, like Ron Paul. And then of course, there are the candidates with the most mass appeal, like Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, who walk the fine line of trying to simultaneously energize the base while still appealing to moderates and swing voters. (You’ll note Newt Gingrich doesn’t fit into any of these categories neatly. That’s because I treat what’s left of his campaign effort as an attempt to raise enough money to pay off his debts. I just can’t take someone with such low approval ratings, such little motivations and such a horrible start to the campaign season seriously).

Yesterday’s debate had all the usual character types, but was surprisingly, well, surprising. The last presidential debate was much more neutered. Moderated by John King, the questions were all wrong and pacing of the debate did little to keep viewers interested. With hundreds of channels to choose from, why watch a boring debate when the inexorable mashups of the best moments will appear in the blogosphere in a matter of hours? Fox News and the three moderators struck a good balance between questions that the audience wanted answered while still subtly pitting the candidates against each other – a tactic that leads to fantastically entertaining TV. Afterall, the GOP debate was competing withJersey Shore‘s timeslot. In yesterday’s debate, we saw the formerly shy and uncle-ish Tim Pawlenty take direct shots and Michelle Bachmann’s record and even get a hilarious jab at Mitt Romney into the mix. He was doing what he could to correct the mistake he made in the previous debate of not going for the jugular when asked about Mitt Romney’s track record. That mistake took him from the top of the pack to the bottom. Pawlenty had every incentive to make last night’s debate a game changer since he needs to win the Iowa staw poll in order to save his campaign.

Herman Cain’s “America needs to learn how to take a joke” line was funny and helped make the debate lively and energetic. Newt Gingerich’s claim that all questions directed at him were “gotcha” questions was funny, but for entirely different reasons.

Perhaps the most surprising smackdown was the Rick Santorum – Ron Paulclash. The clash was highly entertaining, but so unnecessary because neither candidate was in a position to be helped politically by it. But I suppose it’s key to note that both candidates benefited from the squabble in the sense that it earned them each more TV time then they otherwise would have gotten during the debate. (Santorum was awkwardly interrupted when the moderators let Bachmann and Pawlenty engage in a back-and-forth earlier) I guess the strategist in me wonders if either Santorum or Paul think they could ever get the nomination. From my vantage point, they’re both there to raise awareness for the issues they believe in, and of course, their own profiles. But hey, Paul may have won over some anti-war liberals with his gutsy insistence that the U.S. needs to back away from its military-industrial complex.

It’s unclear who emerged as the winner of the debate. None of the candidates surprised me as much as the Fox News moderators did. They asked poignant questions and confronted the candidates with some of their most notable gaffes. Cain was asked about his Sharia law comments, Bachmann was asked about her “submission” to her husband, Huntsman was asked about his record as a moderate and support for civil unions (I don’t think that can be called a bad thing, but the audience at the debate certainly did), and Mitt was asked about job growth in Massachusetts during his time as governor. The moderators of the debate kept the discussion energetic – but most importantly – televisable. This debate was far better than the previous one on CNN. Maybe that’s because we’re getting down to the wire and the candidates are finally starting to pick each other off or maybe it really was good moderating. Either way, televised debates have a major impact on elections. Even voters who don’t sit down to watch an entire debate, certainly see bits and pieces of them on youtube or any one of the 24-hour news networks that play these kinds of clips on loop.


One Response to “GOP Debate Made for Great TV”


  1. Why Liberals Can and Can’t Support Ron Paul « MediAnswers - August 16, 2011

    […] got some liberal empathy when Rick Santorum picked a fight with him during the GOP debate to garner some air time. But he frankly appealed to the youth so much because he advocated for troop withdrawal and an end […]

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